Okay, let me get one thing straight. I’m not a big consumer of celebrity gossip. I don’t read People or Us. I don’t know how many children Brad and Angelina have adopted or what countries they’re from. Paris Hilton and Britney Spears don’t exist in my universe. That’s just never been my thing.
But I do admit a sort of guilty fascination with the recent meltdown of Mel Gibson’s career. I was never that interested in his life before 2010, and while I do like some of his movies, he was never one of my favorite stars. (I still believe Braveheart is a brilliant and epic film, and it is legitimately one of my favorites, but the same movie of the same quality directed by, say, Kevin Costner wouldn’t have made much difference to my opinion of it). I really didn’t pay much attention to the whole Passion of the Christ controversy, where Mel was accused of portraying anti-Semitic attitudes in the film. But when the tapes went public, I did pay attention.
Oh, you know the tapes. They wound up on RadarOnline and in a bunch of YouTube videos. The story was, supposedly Mel’s ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, taped several phone conversations in which Mel goes absolutely berserk. In the tapes, at least as they were presented online, he rants, raves, groans, pants, screams curse words and racial epithets, and generally carries on like a madman. I mean, the tapes are really extreme. Gibson has claimed they’re doctored. I don’t know if they are, but even if they are, it’s still his voice, meaning he really did shout those things over the phone at Ms. Grigorieva, sometime, in some context. That doesn’t really make it better.
Many people have tried to give Mel the benefit of the doubt. I don’t, but I understand why people do. Now along comes a book called Heaven and Mel by Hollywood screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. Yeah, the guy that wrote Basic Instinct. And Showgirls. Now he wrote this short book, marketed as a Kindle Single. (If you want it, you can get it here). It’s an account of Eszterhas’s working relationship with Mel Gibson, who was at one point interested in making a film called The Maccabees, about the historic Jewish revolt in the second century B.C.E. The movie was supposed to be, in both Eszterhas’s and Gibson’s words, the “Jewish Braveheart.” All went well, except for one thing. According to Eszterhas, Mel Gibson totally melted down into white-hot blazing fits of psychotic anger and scared the hell out of Eszterhas and his family to the point where they had to flee from Gibson’s expensive Costa Rica resort.
What’s interesting about this book is that it’s less about Hollywood hubris than it is about coping with religion. Mel Gibson is, as most people know, an extremely devout Catholic. Joe Eszterhas is too; he converted to Catholicism about 10 years ago after a bout with cancer. For Joe Eszterhas, God is a palpable presence. He writes of receiving divine inspiration to write The Maccabees. At one point in the book he actually converses with God while deciding whether to forge ahead on the script despite Gibson’s destructive behavior. He also imagines the real Maccabees taking up residence in his writing office, which is actually done very well. The religious aspect of the book may surprise some people who are just looking for another helping of celebrity dirt. (They get that too).
Eszterhas’s writing has a sort of sardonic tone. I guess that’s to be expected, given the tone of at least some of the movies he’s written, and the fact that he and Mel are now very much at odds. Eszterhas fires away at Gibson with all barrels blazing. The Mel Gibson portrayed here is nothing short of a maniac. Just like he does on the tapes, he shrieks, rages and says unspeakable things. He refers to Jews in offensive and unflattering terms. He fantasizes about murdering Oksana Griegorieva, the mother of his child. He spins bizarre conspiracy theories about Communist plots to destroy the Catholic Church and how the Holocaust didn’t happen. This is the guy who made Braveheart? It’s hard to fathom.
Is Mel really like that? This is ultimately the question that will probably drive most people to read this book. Certainly many people have said that he is. Eszterhas’s portrayal of Gibson is totally in line with the Oksana tapes. And, most famously, Eszterhas himself produced his own tape of one of Gibson’s rampages–the climactic meltdown that occurs at the end of the book, which Estzerhas says was triggered by Mel seeing an unflattering picture of himself on a guest’s laptop. The outburst was so outrageous and frightening that Eszterhas’s teenage son recorded it on his iPod. If you want to hear the actual tape, it’s here–but it’s really offensive. (Bad language. Don’t blame me!) The tape certainly seems to back up Eszterhas’s account.
Is Heaven and Mel a good book? I have to say that I found it fascinating, but it’s certainly not perfect. I’m not sure it’s worth $2.99. The formatting is pretty haphazard and sloppy. The book was obviously written very hastily. But, those peccadilloes aside, it was enjoyable, in a very guilty way. That’s not to say that I take any pleasure out of Mel Gibson’s meltdown. I don’t. If the man we hear on the Oksana tapes and the Eszterhas tape is the real Mel Gibson, this person obviously needs some very serious help. I would pray for him. I would also not see another one of his movies. I already bought Braveheart, but I doubt I’ll be patronizing any future Mel Gibson movies. I find racism utterly repulsive. Eszterhas quotes several Hollywood people as saying that it’s time to draw the line and freeze Mel out of the business. Heaven and Mel was obviously written in part to do that.
I’ve hesitated whether or not to even do this review. As I said, I’m not into celebrity gossip. I find the things that Mel Gibson has said and done to be absolutely horrifying. I’m also not sure we’re still legitimately in “benefit of the doubt” territory anymore. Look, we’ve got Gibson on tape–multiple times now–saying some pretty horrible things. At some point the “benefit of the doubt” ends. You’ve got to draw the line. Joe Eszterhas did, and, one writer to another, I have to say I respect that.
Thanks for reading.